Free Weights or Machines in the Gym?

Personal trainer in ealing

This a question that comes up from time to time and it’s a subject that I have written about before but it always interests me because, in my opinion there is no definitive answer to this question!

For the purposes of this post I am going to go for a couple of lists of pros and cons as well as my opinion on some exercises you should definitely try to use free weights for and the reasons why.

So, lets get cracking!

Why should you use free weights?   

Using free weights

  • Using free weights allows your body to recruit more muscles as you perform the movement for any exercise that you are doing.
  • Your core muscles are working hard to help stabilise your body whilst you are lifting a dumbell or pushing a barbell.
  • Changes in your body shape are likely to come more quickly as more muscles are being used in each repetition and set.
  • Using dumbells for exercise allows you to move in “three dimensions” which is, of course, how we move in daily life.
  • Hand weights are inexpensive to buy and can be used at home to compliment any gym visits.


Why you might prefer to use fixed machines

Using Leg Press

  • Using fixed machines can be more effective/safer if you are a beginner in the gym.
  • There is less chance of getting injured.
  • In most cases, the machine takes care of the form for you so you don’t have to think about your body position or posture.
  • You can probably lift/push heavier weights using a fixed machine versus free weights.
  • You can target more specific body parts and muscle groups.


Exercises I would always try to do using free weights or your own bodyweight


Squats are a great core exercise

Squats performed correctly with a weight, either to the front or back, recruit so many muscles throughout the entire body that the benefit goes far beyond just strengthening your legs and butt. Performing squats with a barbell or dumbells heavily recruit your core muscles to help you stabilise whilst you go through each repetition, which of course means your stomach and lower back muscles get so much stronger; this would be greatly diminished if you used a leg press, for example.

Press Ups

Press Ups Core exercise

If I asked you to lay down on a bench and attempt to bench press your body weigh using a barbell or dumbells you probably wouldn’t be able to do it but I bet you could do at least one press up!

Press Ups work the chest, shoulders, triceps and pretty much all your core muscles so that you really are hitting so many of your upper body muscles and loads more than if you sit in a machine and perform a chest press. You could argue that a Press up is, pretty much, a plank which is one of the most commonly performed core exercises.

Shoulder Press

Shoulder Press with Dumbells

Pushing a barbell or dumbell  above your head whilst standing (preferrably) is again, much more challenging for your core muscles than it is to do the same exercise in a fixed machine. Again, the lower back is worked a lot more performing this exercise with free weights as are all your Core muscles, so much so that you could argue that this, and the other exercises listed here, are actually more of a Core exercise than anything else.

These are just three exercises that I think should be performed with free weights but, a note of caution here : you must make sure you are engaging your Core muscles correctly before you pick up a weight or perform a press up/squat etc. Therefore it would be beneficial to get some 1-2-1 Core training or attend some Pilates classes.

So, there you have it, my take on free weights versus fixed machines and, in summary,  I would always try to use free weights above a fixed machine both for myself and with my clients for two main reasons :

  1. Using free weights recruits far more muscles, mainly in your Core area, than using a fixed machine
  2. Using free weights is, in my opinion, far more likely to replicate your day-to-day body movement

Do you train in a gym? Which method of training do you prefer and why? I would love to hear from you!

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